TOKYO Acknowledging that its prodigal robot pet did little more than talk back and eat batteries every couple of hours, Sony Corp. on Monday (May 7) unveiled software that will enable its Aibo robots to read e-mail messages and Web pages.
The company's Aibo Messenger applications software gives Sony's two-year-old robot the ability to inform owners that e-mail has arrived, to read the contents of a message, and to convey text-based information such as news and weather from home pages, Sony said.
The software is delivered on a CD-ROM and is uploaded onto the PC of an Aibo owner. The software converts e-mail or Web files into sound files, which can be played through the robot's audio speakers when activated by a key word spoken to the dog, a Sony spokeswoman said.
"Some people have commented that Aibo wasn't very useful and asked why it didn't do e-mail," the spokeswoman said. "Now we're sort of taking it another step; now it can do something."
The software, which will be available for order in Japan on May 11 and in the United States starting in July, will be able to read e-mail or preselected Web pages in Japanese or English in six different male or female voices. Users will be able to edit functions so that Aibo only recites messages from a particular sender or with a specific subject heading, for example, the spokeswoman said.
Aibo Messenger enables a robot to recognize up to 50 words, so an owner can program the pet to "fetch" or at least "go for it" the expression used when Aibo doesn't understand something. Even so, Aibo may not listen to you when you talk to it, Sony said.
"There's no cognitive process," the company spokeswoman said. "Aibo does not understand your mail, but it's going to be able to read it."
The CD-ROM will only work with second-generation ERS-210 Aibo models, which have a LAN card slot. These models, on sale since October 2000, have previously depended on the programming skills of users to "learn" such chores, the spokeswoman said.
"The mom and pops, most of the people who bought it, weren't really interested in programming," she said.
While the CD-ROM is compatible with MAP 1 mail software for various Windows formats and Aibo can pick up mail from PCs located up to 20 meters away, the talkability feature will not, ironically, extend to Sony's vaunted Clie handheld personal digital assistants, the company said.
A limited first edition of 5,000 Aibo robots went on sale in June 1999 and sold out immediately, buoyed by orchestrated publicity and restricted sales. Customers must now wait about two weeks for a 'bot, and Sony claims to have sold 50,000 units of the second-generation ERS-210.
This time round, Sony has added other baubles as part of the robot's second anniversary, including a new "imitation leather carrying bag" and "second anniversary color models" in Everest White, Sapphire Violet and Mazeran Green. Sony will also release a "navigator" CD-ROM that will enable owners to manipulate the machine remotely, making it dance, kick a ball, or send a photo from its picture-capture function.
Looking ahead, Sony plans to work on making the dog more interactive, and is considering turning it into more of a game-centric device that will lever profits out of new generations of gaming software, similar to what Sony has done with its business model for the Playstation gaming console, the Sony spokeswoman said. Playstation connectivity is also in the cards.
Finally, Sony is also considering morphing Aibo into more than a walking, talking dog, the spokeswoman said.
"Aibo comes with a key and you can take off the head and the legs and the tail and all you are left with is the hardware body," she said. "We will be adding new things, the possibilities are open."